Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Allen
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images, AP Photo

If the Brooklyn Nets can’t beat out the Orlando Magic in the standings, they can forget about finding any playoff success.

Danny Small

The Brooklyn Nets are riding the rollercoaster that is an 82-game NBA season. Major injuries, locker room drama and historic performances have all been a part of this wild ride so far.

After watching a healthy Kyrie Irving drop 54 points with relative ease, there’s reason to believe Brooklyn is close to a major turning point. Spencer Dinwiddie is back in his perfect niche, dominating second units as a super sub. Not to mention, Taurean Prince is starting to find his three-point stroke again.

Despite earlier narratives that the sky was falling in Brooklyn, it’s safe to say the Nets are a lock for a postseason berth. This is thanks in large part due to the softer-than-tissue-paper Eastern Conference. Brooklyn’s manhandling of the ninth-place Chicago Bulls proved that although there are still two and a half months left in the season, there is no need to worry about the Nets falling out of the playoff picture.

But for this inconsistent squad, making the playoffs isn’t enough. Playing in a competitive first-round series was the bare minimum expectation going into the season and winning a playoff series would constitute success. Heck, it would be an overachievement on Brooklyn’s part. After all, the team is still playing without its best player—Kevin Durant.

So how can the Nets ensure a successful season? Well, it’s really quite simple.

Beat the Orlando Magic

Unless something drastic happens, the Nets and Orlando Magic are going to be the seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference. For both teams, falling to the eighth seed would be a death knell. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won’t need seven games to dispatch either team. That series is likely to end in four games—five if the Bucks are feeling gentlemanly.

The unfortunate truth is that whether it’s Orlando or Brooklyn, either team will serve as Milwaukee’s warmup for the later rounds. Avoiding the Bucks is paramount to Brooklyn hitting the benchmarks for a successful season.

The Nets (21-26) currently hold a half-game lead over the Magic (21-27) in the standings. The two sides will have three crucial meetings after the All-Star break, twice in Barclays Center and once down in the prestigious Amway Center. With so little distance between the two squads, the battle for playoff positioning could come down to who wins the head-to-head matchups.

The Magic took the first game in Orlando against a Nets roster devoid of Irving and Caris LeVert. So long as those two can stay healthy, the final three contests should be more tilted in Brooklyn’s favor.

That being said, the Magic aren’t pushovers. Despite his wonky fit on the roster, Aaron Gordon is an uber-talented forward, Nikola Vucevic is one year removed from an All-Star appearance, and Markelle Fultz is coming into his own as a dangerous young point guard.

Add in the steady play of two-guard Evan Fournier with the potential return of elite all-around defender Jonathan Isaac and the Magic are capable of jumping an unpredictable Brooklyn squad.

Wide-open Eastern Conference

If the Nets conquer the Magic in the regular-season standings, the door swings wide open. As of Feb. 1, the Toronto Raptors hold the second seed in the East, but there are four other teams within four games of the defending champs. The Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers are all eyeing that coveted two seed.

Each of those teams would be favored in a playoff series against the Nets, but the chances of an upset are undeniable.

The Raptors may be the defending champs, but without Kawhi Leonard, they are a much weaker team in 2020. The Celtics are soft on the interior and Kemba Walker has never won a playoff series in his nine-year career. While the Heat look like a potential dark-horse candidate to emerge from the East, they are surrounding Jimmy Butler with a very young group. Victor Oladipo recently rejoined Indiana’s lineup, but there’s no telling if and when he’ll return to his All-NBA form.

And last but not least, the Sixers, have been out of sorts for most of the season. Although it only took five games for this familiar Nets playoff foe to dispatch Brooklyn in 2019, the series was much closer than the final outcome would suggest. Perhaps a second crack at Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is exactly what the Nets need to break through to the second round.

If nothing else, the Nets could play a competitive series against any team from the Eastern Conference not named the Milwaukee Bucks. Those expectations will be set much higher when a fully healthy Durant returns for the 2020-21 season. But for now, the door is open for the Nets to overachieve before KD even steps on the floor.

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